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Crutched Friars create frisson. A little known City of London carving

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

A sculpture of two friars in the City of London casts light on the medieval City, the sculptor's sense of humour and the nature of guiding.

The Two Crutched Friars, sculpted by Michael Black 1985
The Two Crutched Friars, by Michael Black 1984

The two friars, in a little visited street named Crutched Friars, were carved in 1984 by sculptor Michael Black. They stand on Friary Court, a post-modern office building completed in 1985, at the junction of Crutched Friars and Rangoon Street.

The building was designed by architects Chapman Taylor Partners for Commercial Union Assurance, but is now occupied by HFW, an international law firm.

The sculpture is carved mainly from the same Swedish red granite used on the outside of the building, but also features grey Bardiglio marble and bronze.

Michael Black was an Oxford-based sculptor known, among other things, for the busts of Roman Emperors' outside the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. These were originally commissioned by Sir Christopher Wren when he designed the theatre in the 1660s. Due to weather erosion, they were replaced in the Victorian period and again by Michael Black in their third incarnation in 1972.

Elsewhere in the City of London, Michael Black created the memorial to Paul Julius Reuter, founder of the Reuters News Agency, that stands outside the back of Royal Exchange building.

Paul Julius Reuter memorial by Michael Black outside the Royal Exchange, City of London
Paul Julius Reuter memorial by Michael Black

He also collaborated with the photographer Theo Bergstrom in the 1970s on ‘A Picture Book of The Thames’, for which they rowed downstream from the source of the River Thames, over three days, while writing and taking photographs.

Black's sculpture of the two friars is a reference to an order of friars, the House of the Holy Cross, which began possibly in the 1st century in the Middle East. It had orders in countries including Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium and first appeared in England in 1244 at a synod in the Diocese of Rochester when they presented papers from the Pope and sought permission to settle.

The papers must have been impressive, because they settled in a number of places across England, including Colchester, Reigate, Oxford and York. They established themselves in London in 1249 near Tower Hill, just inside the City's eastern wall. They were a mendicant order, relying on charitable giving, or begging.

Friary Court in the City of London, where the order of Crutched Friars once were
Friary Court, where the Crutched Friars once were

In Italy the order was known as Fratres Cruciferi ('cross-bearing brothers'). In English, the word 'cruciferi' was corrupted into 'crutched'.

Their London friary thrived until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539. A glassworks was established in the old friary building in 1567 by the Hugenot glassmaker John Carré, credited with revitalising English fine glassmaking. The glasshouse closed in the 1590s and the old friary building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The 1985 office block now stands on the site.

The friars of the Holy Cross, or Crutched Friars, held a staff with a cross and wore a cross on their habit, although, curiously, neither detail features in the sculpture.

Michael Black has given the friar on the right of his sculpture a staff in his right hand, but there is no cross on it. He holds a sack in his left hand.

The Two Crutched Friars. One friar with a scroll, one with a staff and sack. Neither with a cross
One friar with a scroll, one with a staff and sack

The friar on the left is holding a scroll or parchment. Careful inspection reveals that it is inscribed with the name 'The Prudential', a different assurance company from Commercial Union (which is now part of Aviva).

The friar holds a scroll that reads 'The Prudential' and not the Commercial Union, which commissioned the sculpture
The scroll reads 'The Prudential'

Whether this was the artist's lack of interest in insurance company detail or, my preferred option, his little joke at his client's expense, can only be speculated.

Michael Black, who died at the age of 90 on St Valentine's Day 2019, certainly had a sense of humour.

When he created the stone memorial to Paul Julius Reuter in 1976, Reuters ordered a number of bronze copies for its offices around the world. According to Reuters' manager for France at the time, Steve Somerville, an unannounced visitor carrying a sack turned up at the office in Paris.

Named Black, with wild black hair and dressed in black, the man set the heavy sack on the manager's desk. After producing a bronze bust from the sack, he conjured up a bottle of malt whisky from the bust's hollow interior, sparking off a spontaneous office party.

The sculptor had avoided paying duties at Calais by joking that the bust was a death mask of his mother in law. The French customs officers were sufficiently amused to let him through with zero duty payable.

Back to the 1985 sculpture, it seems Michael Black used his commission from the Commercial Union (who paid £30,000) to pursue his own artistic vision.

It is called 'Two Crutched Friars' in reference to the site's history. However, Black based the two figures on the fictional characters Narcissus and Goldmund, from a 1930 novel by Swiss author Hermann Hesse.

In the novel, Narcissus is a teacher at a monastery school in medieval Germany who eventually becomes an abbot. An intellectual, he represents themes of contemplation and logic.

Goldmund is a pupil who leaves the safety of the monastery school, travels widely, indulges in life's pleasures and becomes an artist. He represents themes of action, passion and the wanderer's search for meaning.

Michael Black's sculpture of The Two Crutched Friars is based on Narcissus and Goldmund
The Two Crutched Friars are based on Narcissus and Goldmund

Hermann Hesse was keen on the idea that all our personalities include opposing, or balancing, characteristics. The two friars symbolise the mix of contemplation, on the one hand, and action, on the other, that lies in everyone.

Actually, that's a particularly good combination for a City Guide!

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1 Comment

May 29, 2023

Regarding the Crutched Friars sculpture, I can add a little tale. I was in my local when approached with an unusual request. 'May I borrow your head?' asked a somewhat unshaven man in a baggy jumper. I was up for it for some reason, and I found myself taken to a studio where a life mask was made to form the model of the friar on the left. It was hot and uncomfortable and I was issued straws to breathe. I have the positive at home.

Michael Black explained that it was not my appearance he wanted but simply a large head. When life-size statues were mounted on plinths, the feet needed to be smaller, the heads larger. I didn't…

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